BY ISHAM JALIL
THE Kelantan government is still in denial that logging and land-clearing activities have caused or worsened floods, even after the 2014 flood, which was the worst the country has ever seen in almost half a century.
The state authority reiterated that logging did not cause the floods but rain did, and that the floodwaters did not come from the logging areas, but from the national park. Unfortunately, pivoting the rhetoric isn’t going to solve the problem, nor does it relieve the suffering of Kelantan people affected by the floods each year.
Despite the denial, several experts from various fields, including meteorology, forestry and sustainable development, have highlighted overwhelming evidence linking land clearing and worsening floods in Kelantan — such as alluvial deposits as far as 1,000m from riverbanks seen post-flood, formation of acres of sandbars in Sungai Kelantan due to accelerated erosion upstream, and countless satellite images showing soil erosion from cleared forest.
The United Nations has stated that deforestation may be one of the principal causes of severe flooding. This is evidenced by the floods in Bangladesh in 1998, Haiti in 2004 and Mexico in 2007.
Experts say soil eroded from cleared land flows into adjacent rivers, causing siltation and shallowing of the riverbeds, hence, worsening the flood.
It is estimated that the amount of soil loss from cleared forests in Kelantan over the last two decades is more than 15 million cubic metres.
This is enough to raise the riverbeds of the entire 517km stretch of the three main rivers in Kelantan — Sungai Kelantan, Sungai Lebir and Sungai Galas — by more than five feet (1.5m) of silt and sediments.
Experts allude to large-scale land clearing precipitating more rainfall, hence, floods. According to a study by the Institute of Infrastructure Engineering and Sustainable Management (IIESM) of Malaysia, massive land clearing affects the hydrologic cycle of rains, hence, causing an unusual increase in rainfall.
This explains why in the 2014 flood, 40 per cent of the annual rain fall came down within 10 days in Kelantan, which corresponds to tens of thousands of hectares of forest cleared in recent years prior to the flood. It is impossible for floodwater to come just from the national park as suggested by the state authority; instead, the floodwater came from the Kelantan highlands, including much from the forest farm and its adjacent areas, as recorded by rain stations across the state.
In 1989, Thailand issued a logging ban following the worst flood the country had seen in nearly a century.
In 1998, China banned logging after floods near the Yangtze River killed more than 3,000 people. In 2011, the Philippines banned logging after 70 people died following a flood caused by unusually heavy rainfall.
Perhaps, the suggestion by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim last Tuesday for the government to ban logging for 10 years to mitigate the flood doesn’t sound so bad after all.
After the 2014 flood, forest farming could have been stopped. But, it wasn’t. Land-clearing activities kept going on. If this persists and land clearing is left unchecked, flooding in Kelantan could worsen in the coming years. A big flood may not happen every year, but it will probably happen sooner than we think and more often than we want. The massive land clearing from forest farming could open a floodgate of water no dams or bunds in Kelantan can contain.
In the two recent floods in Kelantan, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and homes destroyed.
Many people, especially women, children and old folk, suffered in the cold and wet condition.
Considering this, perhaps, the revenue from logging is not worth it.
Alas, the past is the past. We learnt from history but we must move on.
So, what do we do about it now? According to experts, at least three things need to be done:
FIRST, the land-clearing activities need to stop or at least be controlled; logging, if not banned, must be done in a sustainable manner;
SECOND, water containment infrastructure needs to be built upstream to hold the water during heavy rainfall and the monsoon season; and,
THIRD, the de-silting and deepening of rivers downstream needs to continue aggressively. It is critical that efforts are targeted at both the upstream and downstream levels of the Kelantan river basins.
Downstream efforts, such as desilting at the delta of Sungai Kelantan, will be ineffective without requisite work done upstream because the silt and soil will otherwise just keep coming down.
Flood mitigation requires the cooperation of both the Federal Government and state government. The state government doesn’t have as much resources as the Federal Government, and the Federal Government doesn’t have as much jurisdiction on land matters as the state government. But both can complement each other with a common goal to help Kelantan folk.
And unlike the administration in the 90s, the federal administration under Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has been supportive of Kelantan, allocating more than RM30 billion for the state for operational and development expenditure as well as financial assistance in the last five years.
Thus, if the Kelantan government and Federal Government want to cooperate, this would be a good time and platform to do so, putting political expediency aside for the benefit and wellbeing of Kelantan folk.
Human beings may have made floods worse, but human beings can also make it better. As the old saying goes, “Buang yang keruh, ambil yang jernih. Baru teguh peribadi” (Let bygones be bygones; take the good and throw away the bad).
Isham Jalil has has experienced the floods in Kelantan since the 70s. He is the president of Sukarelawan Malaysia, which has helped flood victims in Kelantan over the years, including by rebuilding homes destroyed in the floods. The writer holds a Master of Public Policy degree in politics, economics and law from Harvard University.